Classifying Accidents

January 25th, 2017 § 1 comment § permalink

American doctors need to be very careful to classify each treatment they give, to ensure they can claim payment from insurance companies. Looking at the list of possible treatments, though, makes you wonder if they are being slightly more specific than needed. For example:

  • X35XXXD Volcanic eruption, subsequent encounter
  • W5629XA Other contact with orca, initial encounter
  • W2202XA Walked into lamppost, initial encounter
  • X962XXA Assault by letter bomb, initial encounter
  • Z62891 Sibling rivalry
  • X05XXXA Exposure to ignition or melting of nightwear, initial encounter

[props to Hacker News for locating most of these]

Pitman, Esperanto, FLOSS

January 16th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

This LRB comment on the history of shorthand picks up on the slightly unnerving first wave of enthusiasm around Pitman’s shorthand. It appealed to the same kind of geeky idealists who in other generations would speak Esperanto or write open-source software: men who believed that the road to brotherly love was through mastery of a new, better means of communication:

You can still read every syllable from the first International Shorthand Congress and Jubilee of Phonography, thanks to transcripts produced by ‘an army of phonographers . . . not at all concerned with the economic rewards of shorthand, important as these are, but only with the service – personal, social – even professional – which one Pitmanite can render another in any part of the world.’ One delegate described shorthand as a ‘bond of brotherhood’. Like the open-source movement a century and a half later, Pitmanism was idealistic, distributed and male.

Vote Trepanation!

December 15th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

This must be one of the best election campaign posters of all time.

No, it wasn’t a joke. Amanda Feilding, Countess of Wemyss and March, trying in 1979 to become an MP, had at that point had a hole in her head for the best part of a decade.

In 1970 she drilled through her skull with a dentist’s drill. Then she wiped off the blood and went off to a fancy dress party.

Her husband Joey Mellon filmed the procedure — when they showed it at a film festival, they supposedly caused several audience members to faint.
Joey also had a hole in his head. He documented it all in his book Bore Hole
[customers who bought this also bought: Hieronymous Bosch; Hell’s Angels; The Psychopath Test]

More: Christopher Turner, in Cabinet Magazine

Dead languages on Genius

December 15th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

The street may find its own uses for things, but so does the academy.

RapGenius started as a way to comment on rap lyrics. The expansion to other song lyrics — accompanied by dropping ‘Rap’ from the name — was pretty obvious.

Less so is the appeal to the extreme highbrow. Perpetual super-student Chris Aldrich turned me on to the “off-label” uses in a glowing blog post. He mentions a Harvard MOOC on the early Christianity, which sent 20,000 students to Genius to comment on the letters of Paul the Apostle. There’s also a community busily glossing Latin texts. Want to read Caesar’s Gallic Wars? Bang.

Sanskrit is lagging — I was only able to find one item in the language, the Buddhist Heart Sutra. And that, sadly, is as yet unannotated.

Daniel Quinn vs Meditations on Moloch

December 13th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Paul, seeing my post on Howl, pointed me towards a (much) longer essay, Meditations on Moloch, which also takes its start from the poem.

It’s an impressive chain of thoughts by Scott Alexander, stretching from the start of agriculture through to superintelligence. Moloch is the name Alexander plucks from Ginsberg to describe all of them. Moloch is civilization, or the tragedy of the commons, or institutions that drive their members into mutual destruction:

A basic principle unites all of the multipolar traps above. In some competition optimizing for X, the opportunity arises to throw some other value under the bus for improved X. Those who take it prosper. Those who don’t take it die out

All this reminds me strongly of Daniel Quinn, a writer you might place somewhere between primitivism, Deep Green environmentalism, or tribalism. Quinn is one of the writers I most treasure, someone who has reshaped much of how I see the world. But he’s not a natural fellow-traveller for Scott Alexander, whose background is in the hyper-rationalist technophile community around Less Wrong.

One of Quinn’s fundamental ideas is opposition to ‘civilization’. What Quinn calls civilization roughly corresponds to, or perhaps contains, Moloch. It’s the set of basic lifestyles and activities we live under — which are the ones that have outcompeted other cultures. This civilization is the outcome of a process of natural selection. It has won not by being better for people, but by being better at growing. Quinn takes this all the way back to when farming won out over hunter-gathering, despite the life of a farmer being much worse than that of a hunter.

Alexander traces the same process as Quinn, and then pushes it forward into the future. Humans become less useful to Moloch as technology progresses, meaning that there is less need for Moloch to make any allowance for their wishes:

the current rulers of the universe – call them what you want, Moloch, Gnon, Azathoth, whatever – want us dead, and with us everything we value. Art, science, love, philosophy, consciousness itself, the entire bundle. And since I’m not down with that plan, I think defeating them and taking their place is a pretty high priority.

Alexander’s way out of this is that we should rush to develop a friendly artficial intelligence that can outcompete Moloch on our behalf, reach a position of absolute universal power and use it to smack down other superintelligences that care less about humans.

I can’t say I find that prospect much more reassuring than Quinn’s nods towards neo-tribalism. I’d rather run with a tribe than be subjected to the benevolant dictatorship of an all-conquering machine of loving grace.

Why I love Howl

December 13th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is permanently associated for me with winter in Berlin.

It fixed itself there in the winter of 2009-10. I’d fallen in love, in a way that I’d not believed myself still capable of, and my emotions had burst open into areas I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager. It was also one of the coldest winters, and cold has always energised me. I’d go out the door in the morning, onto uncleared month-old snow, be jolted awake by the cold air, and only restrain myself from running with the knowledge that I’d slip over if I did.

Howl was the constant mental soundtrack when I was outside — as I paced through a park eating carrots on my lunch-break, or earned scathing looks for muttering to myself in the u-bahn. It was the perfect accompaniment for my manic, convoluted rush of half-forgotten emotions — extreme states and rootless poverty, bursts of arrogant passion just a whisker away from despair or self-destruction.

Since then, Howl has always been somewhere in my head. Especially at a time like now, when the cold loosens up my head and I can recover an echo of how it once felt. There’s a miniature revelation as the poem becomes physical rather than intellectual, as the ecstatic intensity briefly becomes comprehensible. I tap fingers, twirl pens; the body fidgets and the mind free-associates.

All this has happened again these past few days. It’s always half a surprise — no more, no less. There’s a strange interplay between my past and my present and Allen Ginsberg, and some point where Howl suddenly bursts into colour. So rather than dissect it I’ll just repeat some of the lines which — for no obvious reason — shine most brightly to me:

      who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in 
              Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their 
              torsos night after night 
       with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, al- 
              cohol and cock and endless balls, 
       incomparable blind; streets of shuddering cloud and 
              lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of 
              Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the mo- 
              tionless world of Time between, 
       Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery 
              dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, 
              storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon 
              blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree 
              vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brook- 
              lyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind, 

You can (should!) read the full poem here

The Unknown Citizen: WH Auden on the limits of data

December 11th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

As the best and the brightest pour their brilliance into chasing our data-trails, WH Auden’s take still feels fully applicable:

The Unknown Citizen

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

Link dump

December 2nd, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

  • Dystopian investment fiction: what nightmares is Vanguard leading us into? [for those not subjected to financial news: people are increasingly giving up on sharp-suited stock-pickers, and instead just buying a bit of everything. This has caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth among said sharp-suited stock-pickers, many of whom are about to lose their meal ticket]
  • A browser game relying on knowlege of vim, the cryptic text editor with a hardcore cult following among programmers
  • Of many articles I’ve read about Leonard Cohen, this one gets closest to my feeligs about him
  • And in processed sugar, Buzzfeed collects some actually-funny tweets.

Faith and Terror

November 14th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Last week I finally grokked a little of what performance art can do, having been left cold by most of my previous encounters with it. I’d gone to the Faith and Terror festival almost by accident, and was pleasantly surprised by how much it touched me.

On the Faith side of things, Sara Zaltash spent perhaps an hour repeating a modified call to prayer. Modified partly in being sung by a woman, but also by entirely removing Mohammed. Is this a personal preference, an attempt at non-sectarian prayer, or part of some tradition I don’t know of? Zaltash’s multilingual translation and commentary doesn’t explicitly explain.

At first her fervour and the beauty of her voice held the room rapt. Then as time passed people mentally disengaged, fidgeted, left the room. At first, I counted it as the unfortunate side-effect of a long performance after a long evening after a long festival.

But then: repetition to the point of irritation is one of the basic, near-essential, building blocks of religion. When I lived in Bosnia the call to prayer was a soothing piece of background, semi-consciously absorbed through its identical presence every day. In my time at a Christian school I was constantly frustrated by the repetitive pattern of hymn and prayer. Yet, like it or not, the prayers are permanently burned into my brain. Repetition works. More than that: it’s obvious from inside any religion, but rarely experienced from the outside. So it’s a perfect thing to bring to a festival about faith.

As for terror: Openspace Performunion gave us a quasi-military march around the theme Every Flag is a Border, and Borders Kill.

It could have been menacing, but wasn’t — and in its way, the lack of menace was more unsettling. We see the soldiers stop for a smoking break — regulated, but gentle. We see them strip and dress and carefully paint each other’s faces. We see them each briefly break away from the group — always alone, as though if two got away together they might never come back. Unnervingly, it’s a platoon you could imagine wanting to join.

The flags are another matter. White they may be, but certainly ont peaceful. They mutate from flag to weapon to phallus to baton to fence and back to flag, but never stop being the enemy of the piece.

With Ritournelle, Anais Héraud and Till Baumann managed to nudge me from peace to nightmare and back again. Sheets of paper flutter through the air, telling us to inhale and exhale. In the back a plastic pole circles horizontally on what looks like a modified record player, while a metronome ticks in the front. Ticking, circling, breathing — the three rhythms don’t align, but they lull me into a meditative peace. Then, slowly, the logic becomes darker, Héraud loses herself in the repetition of a phrase, pulling other words out of it as anagrams. It’s not quite terror, but it does have something of the inescapable self-reference of a dream.

Why did I like all this so much? Partly through encountering it after a while without seeing any performance art, so that even the clichés seemed fresh.

Mostly, though, because of the relationship between the artists and the audience. This was a small and close-knit group, many performers themselves. They skipped past the two usual, frustrating reactions to contemporary art — either unthinking dismissal, or blind acceptance of anything the artist presents. Instead there was healthy, informed criticism, which seemed to get us a lot closer to understanding and communication.

European languages still dominate online

November 13th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Which language is used more online, Italian or Chinese? According to this survey, Italian is present on 2.2% of websites, vs. ‘Chinese’ on 2.0%.

The overall pattern is so surprisingly old-world that I’m not sure whether to believe it. The top languages, and the percentage of websites they are found on, are:

  • English: 52.7%
  • Russian: 6.4%
  • Japanese: 5.6%
  • German: 5.5%
  • French: 4.0%

Chinese comes in at 9%, while Hindi (at <0.1%) is less popular online than Serbian or Estonian.

The Island of Doctor Thiel

October 10th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Peter Thiel and friends are supposedly planning a seasteading project off French polynesia.

This idea, I suspect, will never die among a certain libertarian geek contingent, especially those with a national ideology of the frontier and the new world. Besides, you can trace it back to both Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, which is the cyberpunk equivalent of finding it scribbled down by Da Vinci. So what if prior experiments (Sealand) have down in entertaining flames, all the more reason to keep trying.

But the techno-utopians seem to miss another model for settlement: the company town. This despite its starring role in Snow Crash (‘burbclaves’), and the trend for the stacks’ “campuses” to become deliberately enclosed ecoonmies.

You want to create a tech-friendly community far from goverment interference? A place where the wild fiber flows, and the streets are paved with Pokemon? Why not take over an old mining town? The company shop and the semi-benevolent paternalism would be entirely familiar to googlers and the like. The churches could be repurposed for TED talks and yoga classes, and there must be a few sysadmins ready to embrace a troglodyte existence in the mine shafts.

Mainly, you get to keep your workers isolated and inward-looking, dependent on their work psychologically as well as financially.

What do you think? Can we propose this to some south Welsh community? Or maybe even to Centralia — just cosider living on a fume-billowing hellmouth to be a feature, not a bug

A few spare links

September 20th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Some more quick links:

Brett Scott points out that ‘Cashless society’ is a euphemism for the “ask-your-banks-for-permission-to-pay society”.

The millennial whoop, the wah-oh-wah-oh sound that has become ubiquitous in the charts. If TV Tropes had a music section, this would take pride of place.

Rhizomatica: a project to build community cellphone infrastructure in places where commercial providers fear to tread.

Dataset: databases for lazy people

September 3rd, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Friedrich is getting some much-deserved Reddit love for Dataset, his python library providing “databases for lazy people“. The idea is to allow you to build an SQL table from Python, with columns being auto-created as needed. It gives you all the power of SQL for free, without having to think about your data until you’ve got it in place.

It’s one of my favourite tools in the under-appreciated world of “small data”. I use it for exploratory data analysis, small scripts, and proof-of-concept applications. Most of the time I’m dealing with no more than a few million records, so I don’t need to think about optimizations. But I like the power and simplicity of SQL, and I’d much rather have my data in postgres than mongodb. Not least because I know that if I ever need to improve performance, I can easily add a few indexes and change some column types, and I’ll near-immediately be at a decently-performing database for most applications.

 

 

Chairs and Opium

September 2nd, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

An essay on the history of the chair finds devices on the borderline between deportment and torture:

During the nineteenth century, when primary education became obligatory and children spent more and more time sitting in the classroom, researchers proposed a variety of chair-desk combinations intended to improve posture. Some of the designs included seat belts, forehead restraints, and face rests, although it is hard to imagine that such Draconian devices were ever actually used.

And possibly the most hipster form of addiction: getting hooked on opium as a side-effect of collecting antique opium pipes:

I had this bright idea—bright at the time, I thought. I said to him, “Well, you’ve got this high-quality opium for smoking, the type that isn’t even being produced anymore. You’re the only one that’s got it, and I’ve got all this great, old paraphernalia, some of it in pristine condition.” So I asked him if he’d be interested in combining the two.

Situationism, and why I like it

September 1st, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

I had a conversation earlier about Situationism earlier. I tried and failed to explain why Situationist ideas still get me high. They weren’t unique in theorizing a post-scarcity society. That was common at the end of the Trente Glorieuses. It seemed that the economy was on an ever-upward trajectory, and we hadn’t yet reached the society-wide application of Parkinson’s law, as increasingly obscure work expanded to fill the labour power available.

It’s the situationists, though, who will always stand out for me in their fervid, semi-coherent optimism. Also because their ideas resemble those bubbling through the collective unconscious of the most delightfully fun communities I’ve encountered.

So at the risk  of posting Yet.Another.Manifesto, here’s a call to creativity:

Against the spectacle, the realized situationist culture introduces total participation.

Against preserved art, it is the organization of the directly lived moment.

Against unilateral art, situationist culture will be an art of dialogue, an art of interaction.

At a higher stage, everyone will become an artist, i.e., inseparably a producer-consumer of total culture creation, which will help the rapid dissolution of the linear criteria of novelty. Everyone will be a situationist so to speak, with a multidimensional inflation of tendencies, experiences, or radically different “schools” — not successively, but simultaneously.

 

If anybody is groping towards a manifesto for their life, you could do much worse that dedicating  yourself towards becoming a total participant in the organization of the directly lived moment

 

 

 

The nerdiest burglar

August 24th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m reading with delight Geoff Manaugh‘s Burglar’s Guide to the City.

It’s a trek through urban design and crime, based on the conceit of burglary as a form of architectural criticism. So you have criminals like “Roofman”, who broke through the identical roofs of identical McDonalds franchises, relying on their identical layouts and shift patterns to empty the cash registers and go. Or George Leonidas Leslie, the 19th-century architect turned criminal mastermind — who would build replicas of bank vaults, then train his team to rob them against a stopwatch.

Or my favourite: the gloriously nerdy Jack Dakswin, champion of the fire code:

A retired burglar based in Toronto, Dakswin amazed me with tales of his extensive, homeschooled expertise in the city’s fire code, explaining how the city’s own regulations can be read from the outside-in by astute burglars, turning Toronto’s fire code into a kind of targeting system. Simply by looking at the regulated placement of fire escapes on the sides of residential high-rises, Dakswin could deduce which floors had fewer apartments (fewer would mean larger, more expensive apartments, more likely to be filled with luxury goods) and even where, on each floor, you might expect to find elevator shafts and apartment entrances. He could thus build up a surprisingly accurate mental map of a building’s interior simply by looking at its fire escapes, a virtuoso act of anticipatory architectural interpretation that most architects today would be hard-pressed to replicate.

Anarcho-futurist manifesto

August 8th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

The futurists had all the best manifestos.

Here’s an entrancingly over-the-top Ukrainian anarcho-futurist manifesto from 1919:

The Children of Nature springing from the black soil kindle the passions of naked, lustful, bodies. They press them all in one spawning, pregnant cup! The skin is inflamed by hot, insatiable, gnawing caresses. Teeth sink with hatred into warm succulent lovers’ flesh! Wide, staring eyes follow the pregnant, burning dance of lust! Everything is strange, uninhibited, elemental. Convulsions – flesh – life – death – everything! Everything!

Such is the poetry of our love! Powerful, immortal, and terrible are we in our love! The north wind rages in the heads of the Children of Nature.

 

That “North Wind” bit is presumably because they anarch0-futurists also gave themselves the even more wonderful name “anarcho-hyperboreans“, people of the mythical land in the distant north:

Long live the international intellectual revolution!

An open road for the Anarcho-Futurists, Anarcho-Hyperboreans, and Neo-Nihilists!

Death to World Civilization!

 

 

Aleph

August 6th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

We’ve just (re-)launched Aleph, the project I’ve been working on with OpenOil. It’s a specialized search engine for oil, gas and mining, aimed at helping activists, journalists and government officials make sense of the torrent of regulatory and financial information that comes out of those industries.

Julien Bach made a beautiful video to explain what’s going on:

 

Big thanks also to Friedrich, whose work with OCCRP supplied a huge proportion of the underlying code.

Speed dating in Iran

July 15th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

I don’t 100% believe this, but it tickles me anyway.
Supposedly, car-based flirting in Iran avoids the (potentially illegal) need to be alone with a member of the opposite sex:

Rules of the game? Pile in a car and head with your same sex possie to one of the city’s flirt strips, cruise up and down until you spot a likely target, being careful to pick a car that’s broadly your car’s equal and then aggressively use tail lights, fog lights and rear windscreen wipers to initiate the courting ritual. A response is equivilent to a pick-up and the cars cruise side by side to arrange later rendezvous through open windows and over the sound of preferred music tastes.

The advanced version involves engineering an accident as an excuse to get contact details.

Downside: it’s only a matter of time until the Pick-Up Artists get hold of this and start systematically rear-ending girls’ cars.

Tracking dots in printers — a history in government documents

May 5th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

For twenty years, many color laser printers have included a hidden tracking code on each page they print. Made of microscopic yellow dots, the code can reveal to the police the unique identity of your printer.

An example of the yellow-dot tracking pattern

The EFF and others have reverse engineered a few of these codes, shedding light on how the system works technically.

What they have not explained is how it happened. How do twenty governments and an entire industry collaborate to build a secret tracking system, in the total absence of any public discussion?

This is an attempt to piece together the history of the yellow dots. It’s based almost entirely on government documents — some obtained from the US Federal Reserve by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, others made available by the European Union.

The response to technology is surveillance

It begins in the early 1990s. The central banks of Europe are scared. Technological change is making color printing, once limited to large-scale professional enterprises, accessible to small businesses and even homes. When color printing reaches the masses, it won’t be long until the masses begin printing fake banknotes.

The printer manufacturers are also scared. If their products become tools for counterfeiting, their entire industry might be shut down, or regulated into insignificance.

So they look for a compromise. It turns out, you can have both fancy printers and secure currency. The only cost is the creation of a subtle system of mass surveillance — but if you don’t tell anybody about that, they won’t complain. The yellow dots are born.

Letter from the SSG-2 group of central banks to Alan Greenspan, chair of the US Federal Reserve, 21 July 1995

To understand the document trail, we’ll need a bit of jargon. On the government side, the Europeans are running the show, through a “Special Study Group” on color copying within the European Banknote Printers Conference. Soon reformulated into the “SSG-2” to accommodate Japan and North America, this will be the clearing-house for negotiations with manufacturers. The industry, being at this point almost entirely Japanese, works through something called the Japan Business Machine Makers Association (JBMA). Non-Japanese manufacturers are also represented here, with Lexmark reportedly joining in 2008. The yellow dot arrangement will be called either BITMAP or the Tracing System.

A “voluntary arrangement”

The JBMA propose a “voluntary arrangement” – though this is clearly the kind of volunteering you do to avoid ever finding out what compulsory looks like. Each manufacturer rigs their copiers and printers to put those microscopic dots onto each page. Every year they send a list of codes to the JBMA, which compiles them for the law enforcement agencies.

This system seems to come into operation in 1993.

Some of the 23 countries who received the printer-dot decoding software

The anti-counterfeiters aren’t expected to look at fake banknotes with a magnifying glass. The manufacturers cook up something they call BITMAP – a software package to match the code to the printer. All you need is a standard PC and a scanner. And a floppy disk drive – this piece of secret spy tech comes on floppies as late as 1998. You fire up BITMAP, scan your counterfeit, and it tells you the manufacturer of the machine it was printed on.

Fingering your customers: a free after-sales service

The BITMAP software appears to only tell you the manufacturer. To find out the specific machine, you need to go to the manufacturer. “Copier manufacturers”, according to SSG-2, “will continue to provide assistance in identifying specific copiers at no additional cost”.

blah

Working with the manufacturers

So each of the manufacturers is deeply involved in this process through the nineties. Canon, Xerox, Konica — all have a designated contact person, responsible for secretly responding to police requests to identify their customers. BITMAP comes with a list of their names and contact information, one per manufacturer.

Admittedly, not all manufacturers play along with full enthusiasm. By 1997 the SSG-2 was collecting information about which companies were dragging their feet.

blah

Division of responsibilities — and payments – for the tracking system

One set of minutes asks members to “let the SSG-2 Working Group know if they encountered problems with getting information front any individual copier manufacturers”. And the US Secret Service were instructed that “concerns with the response time for providing copier information, should be referred to the JBMA”.
Grumbles aside, the system worked. By 1998, some 23 countries were receiving their BITMAP floppy disks from Japan.

A European model of surveillance

European countries were among the first to push for printer tracking dots, and they have continued to be enthusiastic users of the system. In 2000, Europol reported early work towards euro-centralisation of printer tracing:

Work progressed on the European Union Counterfeit Currency Situation Report, as well as on the bitmap register for the collation of information on counterfeit currency produced by traceable colour copiers.

By 2003 they had persuaded the Council of the European Union to fund a centralised printer-tracing service within Europol:

setting up a BITMAP intelligence centre at Europol. This common database should contain bitmap related information and it could serve as the Bitmap co-ordination centre in the European Union. The database shall contain the relevant (technical) data on decoded bitmap-information, investigative data including personal data of companies and persons related with the bitmap subject. EU Member States are asked to supply, in accordance with their national legislation, all existing Bitmap data to the Bitmap intelligence centre

It’s not clear how fully the Council were informed about what they were agreeing to fund. The document used the full force of bureaucratic vagueness to describe BITMAP, explaining it as being “based on an identification of offset processes that are used, inter alia, for counterfeiting banknotes”.

By 2009, Europol described its work on “centralising and processing” printer-tracking requests:

This service provides requesting countries with swift and relevant
information on equipment being used by counterfeiters. Europol is
also in a position to offer in-house decoding of bitmap as well as
relevant training.

The training took place extensively, with events in Brussels, Lisbon and Romania. Germany’s police forces are apparently Europe’s top experts on printer surveillance. The BKA, the federal police service, was intended to provide advanced (“second level”) training to the rest of Europe.

Europol’s BITMAP services have not been limited to EU member-states. According to experts within the Czech police, Ukraine and Turkey have been among the countries most frequently asking for Europol’s help. Even the Russian police received BITMAP trainingsupported by instructors from the Europol’s Forgery of Money Unit

And by this point, Europol’s BTIMAP activities were not limited to cunterfeiting. Although the system had been developed to identify banknotes, there was no technical reason not to use it to trace back any color-printed document to the source. By 2007, Europol were handling more requests relating to documents than to forged Euros. This off-label was never part of the original justification of the tracking-dot system. It’s just a typical example of how surveillance tends to expand within institutions, especially in the absence of any public constraints.

Unintended Consequences

This whole history is an example of what can go wrong when small groups of experts try to solve their own problems, without reference to the wider political context.

A large-scale surveillance system was built as the solution to a technical problem. There was never any public debate, and no evidence of elected officials considering the pros and cons of the system. Senior officials were given vague descriptions of what was being developed, without enough information for them to understand its dangers.

Police and central banks, governments and manufacturers, all worked together across the world and over two decades — but at no point did anybody consider asking the public whether they wanted their printers monitored.

Some of the more important documents on the printer tracking system are: